One of the wonderful pleasures I have available to me now that I am - essentially - living in downtown Tokyo, is the presence of a nearby public bath. I wrote about this place some months back - describing how it was a bit difficult for my son-in-law Ioan to make his first visit there - and I guess it has perhaps become my most visited place here in Asakusa. After all, I certainly don't go back to the same restaurant day after day, but until such time as there is a selection of different bath places available, I'll keep returning to this one!

I would never have thought of such a thing when I first began coming to this bath, but this business is in competition with mine! We are both listed in the 'Things to do in Tokyo ...' section of a gigantic travel information and review website. When you drill down in that website you find that there are currently 33 'Activities' listed in our area (defined as Taito-ku by their system).

These Activities are ranked, of course in an order determined by the reviews posted by visitors who have tried them. The public bath has 18 reviews, ranging from a 5-star 'Charming Sento!', down to a one-star 'Never again!', and this has given them an overall ranking of #16 in that list of 33 Activities.

My own Mokuhankan shop, being only four months old - as compared with the 100-year plus history of the bath - has only nine reviews, but in our case, we have so far avoided the 'Never again!' type of reaction from our visitors, so the review website has given us an overall ranking of #4 out of 33. (I'm pretty happy about that, as you might imagine; after only four months of operation to be sitting near the top of that list, even above such places as the famous Ueno Zoo!)

So I now sit here, faced with a slight ethical conundrum. I too, am a user of that public bath. So shouldn't I visit the review website and give my honest review of their service? But how honest could I be, knowing that if I praise them too highly, they will climb in the rankings against my own business! And of course I would never consider doing such a thing as giving them a bad review, in order to push them down. No, the clearest course of action for me is to simply refrain from comment completely.

But my resolve on that point was tested somewhat last night, when I had an unpleasant experience there. I had come out of the bath area into the changeroom, opened my locker and begun to get towelled down, when I was struck by a repulsive smell. No, it wasn't my socks in the locker - it was an elderly gent seated on the bench next to me, getting undressed ready for his bath. There is no way to put this politely; he simply stank. And it wasn't just me who thought so; as I sat there getting dried off, one of the attendants came up and began to talk to him about it.

She didn't berate him at all, but she clearly had to let him know that this was a problem. It was kind of a sad situation; he made out as though he didn't know what she was talking about, but we could all see that his clothes - now in a pile on the floor - were filthy, as was he. She told him straight to make sure he got really well washed before even thinking about getting into the bath, and when she asked if he had some other clothes to change into, he mumbled a bit, but it was clear that he had no others with him.

I didn't hang around to see how this was all resolved, but quickly got my own clothes on and headed home, damp towel tossed over one shoulder. But it was very hard to avoid thinking about what I had just seen ... and thinking about my own future.

The streets around here are pretty well lit. The phrase 'whistling in the dark' shouldn't come to mind!


Comments on this story ...

Posted by: Jed

You could give a set of new clothes to the manager. Tell them that if the man comes back, he's welcome to them. They might appreciate it. It's kind, but it's also good for their business!

Posted by: Dave

This isn't really the sort of situation that an 'outsider' like myself should interfere with. This sento has been in business over a hundred years; an old guy like this has quite probably been a customer of theirs for a great many years. She spoke to him in a basically familiar way that would imply long acquaintance.

The situation of elderly people living alone is reaching crisis proportions here in Japan, and many social organizations - from City Hall on down - are active in trying to alleviate many of the problems stemming from it. This guy actually has quite a lot of resources available to him; it's just a question of making that connection with the relevant organizations.

Given this experience the other day, I suspect that he'll be getting some help in the very near future …

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